The Real British Princesses

I discovered Jerrold Packard’s book, Queen Victoria’s Daughters, at a library book sale and couldn’t pass it up. Five of Victoria and Albert’s children were girls, and she doted on several of them, particularly her eldest and possibly brightest child, Vicky. By contrast, she never warmed to her oldest son, Bertie, even though he was destined to be King Edward VII. Cozy domestic life is associated with the Victorian era, but the Queen wasn’t a terribly involved or nurturing mother. Later, when her girls were married, she provided bad political advice—to Vicky especially, whom she persuaded to maintain her Englishness after marriage to her Prussian husband, Fritz. This alienated his parents (the emperor and empress), the stifling Prussian court, and, worst, estranged her from her three oldest children, including the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, England’s great enemy in World War I.

Victoria searched for appropriate royal husbands for the girls among the minor and now bygone German royal houses. Compassionate Alice, second oldest, married Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, plain Helena married Christian, Prince of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, and the youngest, Beatrice, married Henry, Prince of Battenberg. All the girls made royal marriages except Louise, the artistic fourth daughter and reportedly the most beautiful, who married John, future 9th Duke of Argyll. Although John’s father headed the Highland clan of Campbells, one of Britain’s oldest and most prominent families, the lack of royal blood created controversy across Europe.

Ironically, the issue of royal blood was no minor matter. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the hemophilia gene. Statistically, half her sons were likely to be afflicted, and any minor injury could bring on a fatal hemorrhage. Son Leopold inherited this damaged gene and died at age 30 after a fall. Of Victoria’s daughters, Louise and Beatrice were carriers. The disease had devastating effects on a number of Victoria’s 40 grandchildren in several royal families.

In addition to Vicky’s marriage to one German emperor and motherhood of another, her daughter Sophie married Constantine, king of Greece; Alice’s daughter Alexandra married Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia, both of them murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918, along with their four daughters and son (a hemophiliac); Beatrice’s daughter Victoria Eugenie became queen of Spain.

English royalty’s multigenerational affiliations with German families—the Hanovers, Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and her children’s marriages—created political problems after the Great War. The wartime king, George V, renamed the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family after the longtime home of the British monarchy, Windsor. Members of the Battenberg family, into which Princess Beatrice married, Anglicized its name to Mountbatten.

Victoria’s reign seems both long ago, in terms of the massive intervening cultural changes, and quite recent historically. Her last daughter, Beatrice, died in 1944, and her last grandchild, the unhappy queen of Spain, in 1969. Meanwhile, Victoria will be the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of William and Kate’s baby (baby-William-Charles-Elizabeth-George VI-George V-Edward VII-Victoria).

I recommend this highly readable and fascinating book for anyone interested in British history, women’s history, or the intricacies and political shenanigans of 19th c. royal households.